Choose Compassion Over Empathy
I attended a dinner last week with Tania Singer, a neuroscientist from the Max Planck Institute in Germany, and Matthieu Ricard, a Buddhist monk, scientist, and meditation expert. They told us about an experiment that Tania did with Matthieu.
Using an fMRI machine, she measured his brain activity while he was directing compassion toward people who are suffering. Matthieu experienced a warm, positive state and the network in his brain associated with love and affiliation was activated. Then Tania asked him to focus on feeling empathy. Matthieu said it was almost intolerable and left him emotionally exhausted. A completely different network in his brain, the one associated with pain and unpleasantness, had been activated.
Empathy is to feel what another person is feeling. The same area of the brain that is activated in a person who is suffering is activated in the person who feels empathy. Empathy can leave you feeling emotionally drained and overwhelmed. Compassion involves concern and love for another person. You are aware of their suffering and want to help them, but you don’t experience the same feelings of suffering.
Empathy can lead to burnout. Having compassion is much more constructive. It lets you connect with another person’s suffering without becoming too distressed yourself. Compassion increases your resilience and ability to serve others.
Loving kindness meditation can help you cultivate compassion. All it involves is extending feelings of warmth and care to yourself and to others as you meditate. Repeat phrases like, “May you be happy”, “May you be healthy”, “May you be safe”, and “May you live with ease”. Start by directing these thoughts to yourself and then to people close to you. Move on to someone you feel neutral about. Now direct the thoughts to someone with whom you have a difficult relationship. End with the wish that everyone around the world be happy.